Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Songwriting with Graham Kendrick and a mountain of ideas

Sanj and I spent two days last week in London with a bunch of friends and colleagues from the Christian music world, at what's known as the songwriter's consultation. It's an annual gathering of songwriters, artists, producers and industry-type people from the parallel universe that is the Christian music scene and it's the third year we've been invited to attend - an invitation that, despite having virtually no credentials, we're only marginally less overwhelmed by with each passing year.

In previous years the consultations have been graced by guys such as Jim Wallis, Martin Smith, Matt Redman and Gerard Kelly - names probably only worth dropping within a church culture - but this year psychologist Jim McNeish was the main speaker and he blew everyone away with his insights into the vast connections between mind and body, personality and upbringing, character and behaviour, and how all of this relates to the writing and performing of music. It was fantastic stuff, and way too in depth to even try to write about here, but it certainly has refreshed my creative juices and recharged our efforts at sticking at this tough old game.

During the evening session on the first day I had the privilege of sitting down with Graham Kendrick (left, from our first time at the event) to write with him for a couple of hours. I played him a couple of ideas I've been bouncing around for a while and we opened up some new directions to explore at later points, as well as getting the opportunity to discuss how to tackle some of the challenges in writing songs for church congregations to sing.

Before going, I think I was floundering a little bit, perhaps even verging on what many refer to as "writer's block", but since coming back to Southampton I've found myself virtually falling over my feet with ideas, and feeling confident to plough further into writing for this very specific purpose, which is a cool thing.

Predictably, it's gotten me all a'thinkin...the more I engage with the process of writing songs for churches to sing, the harder and more restrictive it seems. In many ways, I see strong similarities with the pop world. Both types of song come with restrictions of form, subject matter and lyrical approach. Genre, style and production values are also generally restricted. And even further to most pop songs, worship songs have to be singable by virtually anyone with words that are suitably general in style and content to be sung anywhere in the world!

It's a tough ask, but it's an interesting process writing to a strict set of requirements - I generally start out feeling pretty boxed into a corner and rather stifled, but, oddly, as I get going, I often get to ideas quicker and find myself more focused in working them through. And largely I think this happens precisely because there aren't so many options. It's those immortal words of Stravinsky again - "true freedom is experienced within the strictest of confines"... or words to that effect at least.

As counter-intuitive as this idea seems at first, my experience seems to bear out its inherent truth. And this goes for pretty much any analysis I can think of relating to being spontaneous in music...for example, when I'm teaching improvisation, the first lesson often runs something like this -

"Pick a note, any note you like and play whatever you feel on just that one note. Go..."


"OK, how about we go for a middle C. Try playing something over this feel [I drum or beatbox a beat]. Something with a bit of groove perhaps...?"

Sometimes a few faltering ideas...

As simple as the task sounds, often it's necessary for me to choose the note, the tempo, the feel, perhaps even play a few ideas, all before the student might play anything at all, and even then, some will still remain silent.

When asked to be spontaneous, our inability to do anything would appear at first to suggest a lack of ideas, but I think it's actually the reverse - we're struck numb by many thousands of ideas - so many so that our brains go blank.

Which is all a rather round-a-bout way of leading you to my rather humble conclusion that "writer's block" may perhaps be better referred to as "writer's indecisiveness".

Whatever you call it, I can happily report that it's passed and the songs are flowing thick and fast! As is my favourite Christmas album of all time, courtesy of Santa Sufjan. Where are you now, huh?


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